Both an MSN and a DNP can provide a ticket to move from the registered nurse (RN) level to becoming a nurse practitioner (NP), a nurse executive, or another more advanced role in nursing. (Earning a PhD is also an option for those who wish to focus on research or serve as academic faculty and administrators at the highest level.)
When it comes to choosing between an MSN vs. DNP, you’ll want to consider how each can serve your long-term career outlook, as well as their different time and tuition investments.
What Is an MSN?
A Master of Science in Nursing prepares graduates to move into specialized nursing careers and positions of leadership. It also increases their earning potential. General areas of study may include:
- Evidence-based nursing practices
- Theory for advanced practice nursing
- Nursing leadership and management
- Nursing informatics
The length and focus of an MSN depends on your career outlook and your educational background.
An MSN degree provides access to some of the highest levels of nursing, such as advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) roles:
- Nurse practitioner (NP)
- Family nurse practitioner (FNP)
- Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner – primary care (PMHNP-PC)
- Adult gerontology nurse practitioner (AGNP)
BSN to MSN Degree Program
A Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree is required for admission into an MSN program, where you’ll be able to choose from various MSN tracks and options. The traditional path to an MSN is to earn your BSN first, then your RN licensure.
RN to MSN Bridge Program
Some schools offer RN to MSN bridge programs, which allow registered nurses to apply directly to an MSN program. RN bridge students complete the foundational courses they would have taken in a BSN program.
However, curriculum choices in bridge programs may be more limited than in BSN-to-MSN tracks, with fewer electives. Credit hours for these programs can range from 50 to 150.3,4
Accelerated or Direct-Entry MSN
No nursing degree or experience? No problem. If you’ve completed an entirely unrelated bachelor’s or graduate degree, you can enter a program designed for students who have their general education completed and now want to begin the journey of becoming a nurse. The training is long and intensive.
Students are typically able to sit for the NCLEX-RN exam and apply for an RN license after their first year. Depending on their chosen APRN specialty, the direct-entry programs often require 60 to 75 credit hours plus clinical hours, as well as completing prerequisite courses before entering some programs.3,4
What is a Doctor of Nursing Practice? A Doctor of Nursing Practice program is similar to an MSN program in several ways. With a DNP degree, if you enter with a BSN, you can select either a clinical APRN or a non-clinical track and include one or more population-specific specialties.
And like the MSN, you can apply to a DNP program from multiple starting points:
- MSN degree (MSN graduates have already specialized, so they don’t choose a specialty in the DNP, and the program is significantly shorter)
- BSN degree (these students choose a specialty)
- ADN + RN license (may include catch-up BSN prerequisite coursework)
However, the DNP is a higher level of practical nursing education than the MSN, and that is reflected in three key differences:
- RN requirement – DNP programs only accept students with a current, unencumbered RN license—you can’t enter the program as a complete novice.7
- Additional training – Although there is overlap in APRNs and track specialties, a DNP degree program offers further training than the MSN in topics such as policy, ethics, interprofessional collaboration, systems leadership, and the highest levels of evidence-based practice.
- Future APRN requirement – Currently, you can acquire APRN licensure/certification with either an MSN or DNP degree.
Is a DNP Higher Than an MSN?
A doctorate is a higher degree than a master’s. If you list collegiate nursing degrees in order of least to most seniority, the hierarchy is:
- Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN)
- Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)
- Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)
- Doctoral degrees:
- Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)
- Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing (PhD in Nursing)
The two doctoral options serve different aims: the DNP is the higher education level of nursing practice, while the PhD is focused on research and teaching at the college level.
How Does a DNP Differ from an NP?
Keep in mind that a DNP is a degree, while a nurse practitioner (NP) is a professional role. So, it’s more helpful to ask about the differences in function or authority between an NP who holds a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree and an NP who holds a Master of Science in Nursing degree.
Essentially, a DNP prepares graduates for higher nursing leadership positions and earning potential than an MSN. For example, depending on factors like organization and geographic location, a nurse practitioner, nurse executive, or family nurse practitioner salary would most likely be higher with a DNP degree. 6 But in the future, a DNP will be required for some APRN positions for which MSN degrees have been sufficient to date.7 Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists (CRNAs) are the main individuals affected by this change, but it’s possible that other positions like Nurse Practitioners, Clinical Nurse Specialists, and Nurse Midwives may face this requirement in the future.7
Find Out More
Looking to move forward in your nursing career? Both post-graduate degree programs for practical nursing expand your skills and prepare you to take on more leadership in the profession.
USAHS Nursing Programs
The University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences (USAHS) offers a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) program, a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) program and Post-Graduate Nursing Certificates designed for working nurses. Our nursing degrees are offered online, with hands-on elements depending on the program and role specialty. The MSN has several options to accelerate your time to degree completion. Earn your advanced nursing degree while keeping your work and life in balance.
- Amanda Bucceri Androus, RN, BSN, “Master’s of Science in Nursing – MSN Degree Programs,” Registered Nursing.org, last modified September 2022, https://www.registerednursing.org/degree/msn/
- “FAQ: What Are the Different Types of Master’s Degrees in Nursing?” Online FNP Programs, last modified June 2020, https://www.onlinefnpprograms.com/faqs/types-of-msn-degree-programs/
- Androus, Registered Nursing.org.
- “FAQ,” Online FNP Programs.
- “Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) Degree Overview,” NurseJournal, last modified September 2022, https://nursejournal.org/degrees/dnp
- “Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) Salary – 2022,” Nursing Process, https://www.nursingprocess.org/dnp-salary/30
- Stephanie Behring, “Is a DNP the New MSN?” All Nursing Schools, October 13 2020, https://www.allnursingschools.com/articles/aprn-requirements-2025/